Singletons – the changing shape of the single world

Last week’s issue of The Economist included a provocative article about the increase of single adults internationally entitled “Singletons: the attraction of solitude.” The evangelical church has not historically done a great job of reaching out to single adults. In one of my former church settings, a significant leader who was a single adult challenged me and others on our leadership team to actively change the way that we spoke to the church to be more engaging with singles in our midst. It changed my perspective greatly.

Here are some highlights from the article. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Singledom is on the rise almost everywhere…singletons [those living by themselves] will be the fastest-growing household group in most parts of the world…

The trend is most marked in the rich West, where it has been apparent for some time. Half of America’s adults, for instance, are unmarried, up from 22% in 1950. And nearly 15% live by themselves…

In Japan women are refusing to swap their careers for the fetters of matrimony. Even in Islamic Iran, some women are choosing education over marriage, exploiting newly relaxed divorce laws or flashing fake wedding rings to secure sole lodgings….

‘Living alone, being alone and feeling lonely are three different social conditions,’ says Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of a recent book, ‘Going Solo.’…

Some governments are now trying to stem the tide. The UAE’s Marriage Fund, for instance, has spent almost $16m this year in one-off grants to encourage couples to tie the knot…In America the Obama administration has continued to fund the ‘Healthy Marriage Initiative’, a programme launched by George W. Bush, to encourage unmarried parents to get hitches, at a cost of $150m per year…

18 thoughts on “Singletons – the changing shape of the single world

  1. When I was young and a single the church did NOT reach out to me.
    But I did have a few married friends that did. Result: Naomi. Have to connect with me for the rest of the story.

    • Richard, thanks so much for your comments on this article. I love hearing how friends came around you to help you find your place. My hope is that the church doesn’t segregate married people from single people to the degree that they cannot find a place together!

  2. I heard somewhere that the protestant church just puts all of our singles in a room and waits for them to come out in pairs – the only way we find them acceptable. It is a rather bizarre way to approach singles – especially considering what Paul had to say about singleness.

    • Patricia, I agree with you that at times the Protestant church does not validate long-term singleness or the call to celibacy. Unintentionally, I believe, there are times when singleness is validated only as a precursor to married life. I don’t think this is right, but at times is a reality in the church.

      At the same time, the challenge for many singles is that they do wish they were married and finding an appropriate way to navigate into healthy relationships without awkwardness is hard to accomplish.

  3. Singles are probably one of the most neglected groups of people in the church. If you think about it, there is something for children, youth, married couples, and seniors, but often times singles are overlooked. We don’t fit into these groups. As a result, singles often find themselves navigating through life the best they can without any particular guidance from anyone within the church. I’ve seen it play out over and over in many churches. Probably not intentional on the part of the church, just an oversight.

    • Dan, my experience is that churches and church leaders don’t neglect singles intentionally but often simply ignore their specific needs and situations out of ignorance. What do you think that it takes for a church to move from overlooking singles to truly ministering to them?

      • I would say it takes a concerted effort to recognize this group and take an interested in what is happening in their lives. While fellowship is nice, I think this is best done individually because everyone is different and has different needs. The idea of Godly mentoring comes to mind. I think is is important for a single person to have someone that they can go to for prayer, advice, or as a sounding board-someone that they can trust. Accountability is another big issue that I have seen missing from the single life. I feel like we are very much on our own in that respect.

  4. I’ve never understood why single young adults & married young adults have to be separated in the church. Some of my best friends are married…and we started out single together. There’s nothing that’s makes you feel more lame than staying behind in the “singles” group when your friends graduate to the “married” group. I’m OK with this now – my solution is just to avoid all groups and stick with close friends. But, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has felt this way…

    • Dear friend, thanks for your honest comments. Even your comments about “graduating” from the singles group to the married group says a lot about how this feels to people. When Kelly and I were right out of college, we were part of a small group through our church. We were the only married couple in the group and the rest were singles both younger and older than us. Our deepest friendships were fashioned in that group, many which continue to this day.

      My hope is that even when churches segment off singles and young marrieds for certain things there are opportunities, like small groups and worship services, that allow relationships and friendships to carry forward between singles and marrieds. We are the family together!

      • Thanks for your reply, Matt. I agree – we’re family! And, I appreciate your comment down below about the young & old. That is one thing I like about EBC – there’s good representation from all age groups. Of course, this creates its own set of challenges…but we glean so much from each other.

        One question is, do we need to segregate by marital status at all? What purpose does that serve? To be honest, sometimes I think we should just get rid of all the special groups – youth ministries, college age, etc., and just all join life groups – like family. I’m sure there is good reason we don’t do that :), but I think there could be some positives, too.

      • I appreciate the question regarding the value of separating by marital status or, for that matter, separating by any different groups at all. Some church attendees from an earlier generation have mentioned to me that they didn’t have ‘youth group’ in their day.

        So why should we separate at all? I believe the underlying issue is how we minister to one another well within specific situations that groups of people face. This is highlighted by a ministry like Celebrate Recovery which ministers with people dealing with addictions or similar circumstances. Would the opportunity for direct ministry to addictions happen without a specific group? Yes, but perhaps not as clearly or in as helpful a manner as possible.

        Bringing the discussion back to the married and single separation, we could ask the same question: would the opportunity for direct ministry to specific challenges of life circumstances happen without a specific group? I’d say the current answer in many churches would be similar to that above: yes, but perhaps not as clearly or in as helpful a manner as possible.

        I think this answer is worth debating. While there certainly should be opportunities for ministry within specific life circumstances (e.g., newly married, grief situations, children, university students), it is worthy of deeper consideration on whether long-term grouping should be established along these lines.

        This is what I hear you asking. Am I reading your comments correctly?

      • This is in reply to your second response…wouldn’t let me reply to it (maybe it’ll show up there, though).

        Yes, you were reading my comments correctly. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I see what you’re saying re: celebrate recovery, etc. And, I’m glad you think that the value of separation/groupings warrants more consideration. Obviously, I don’t know what the right answer it…but I agree that it’s worth thinking about.

  5. I agree with Dan. I do not believe the church knows how to relate to singles and/or how to include them. We end up trying to meet each others needs..sometimes we do it well and other time…..
    I believe singles need families and families need singles.
    I also agree tha tmentoring–both ways– and accountability are sadly missing in the church today.

    • Marie, your statement “I believe singles need families and families need singles” is so true. The church needs to be a place where we enter into relationships with each other across a variety of different life situations.

      Although this isn’t the topic at hand, I would also say that the young need the old and the old need the young. We need to also be a multi-generational community, too.

  6. So many of these comments are true. This is a rather complex issue. Experience has taught me that if you survey a group of 3 single Christians and ask how their needs can be met, you’ll get at least 4 opinions. Many want integration with married groups, many want segregation by age, many want only singles, some feel a calling to “singleness”, some are seeking a spouse. It is further complicated by the fact that this cohort is a notoriously transient group and continuity of ministry is usually non-existent. In addition, this cohort tends to have more free time and discretionary resources. This can have a profound effect on what attracts a person to a ministry. Families with children are, by my experience, more prone to consistent attendance and provide less hurdles in certain areas of program development. Catering to a singles population requires immense flexibility and discernment. Such a ministry presents so many apparent contradictions in goals and approaches. It cannot succeed on human efforts alone. To that end, it is a really good ministry to allow the Spirit to move.

  7. While I totally agree that this is a complex issue, I think that anytime you’re dealing with people in general, it gets complex & messy! People are complex & messy period—single or not.

    I often get the sense that the church just doesn’t know what to do with me. If I had a kid, they’d know what to do with me; If I was married, they’d have a slightly better idea (although maybe not if I was young AND married AND had no kids!); and especially if I needed some sort of discernible support, they’d know what to do with me. But instead, I’m just a content, 27-year-old single girl, and I really don’t feel like there’s a good “age & stage” group for me at most churches.

    I obviously only represent one individual’s opinion and many others would undoubtedly disagree, but I will say it’s pretty discouraging that the only time I feel like I don’t fit in is at church.

    One thing that I don’t agree with, however, is that singles inherently have more time on their hands! It is certainly not true for me. I believe that’s a huge reason why attendance for singletons is more sporadic—it’s not a commitment issue, it’s a lifestyle issue. The beauty of singleness is very much like the beauty of being any kind of AWOC (Adult Without a Child) in that life can hold more adventure that’s not limited to a geographical location. Most of my AWOC friends, married or single, live more adventurously, travel more and simply are not around as much on the weekends. Most of my friends with kids—again, whether married or single—do have a lot more consistency to their lives even during free time like weekends. Not saying it’s good or bad, just sayin’. Doesn’t mean we’re not interested in community at church. Doesn’t mean we’re not interested in church in general, just is a simple fact of our lives.

    Final thought: I loved this article in WSJ from earlier this summer. It really speaks to the whole “singles have more time” supposition. Managing a household on one’s own is a challenge, and the demands that come with a job in which you’re seen as “the single one” who “has more free time” eliminate pretty much all of my “free time.” It’s a good read, I highly recommend it.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304791704577420130278948866.html

    Thanks for the great article, Matt! Loving this discussion!

    • Liz,

      I’m so glad you joined the discussion! You’re comments are extremely helpful. Some pastors I know lament the fact that people without kids – married or single – are not at weekend worship services more frequently. This is most often seen as a lack of commitment but I am hearing you say that is more reflective of freedom and overall lifestyle. That rings true to me.

      I think that small groups are one of the best ways to tear down the age-stage segmentation. My ideal small group has people from all sorts of life stages and circumstances coming together to learn from Christ together. Have you been able to experience this sort of thing ever? Small groups can also provide a setting where those who would prefer to be with others in their own life situation can do so. There can be options (hopefully without turning us into consumer Christians!).

      Would you be willing to share some ways that churches or ministry leaders inadvertently push young singles off to the side? We all have blind spots and I’d like to learn from you with this.

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